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Perk up, pianist!

Review by Sean McQuaid 

The Island Fringe Festival is a bit like Forrest Gump’s metaphorical box of chocolates in terms of never knowing what you’re gonna get, but patterns do emerge. Fringe fare is often weirder, edgier, more artsy, more challenging or some combination of the above; so it’s always refreshing to see a Fringe show that’s pure, uncut fun, like Sarah Hagen’s exquisite Perk up, pianist! 

As a smart, artful one-woman theatrical show built around classical piano music, Perk checks off some fairly standard Fringe boxes in terms of featuring unconventionally executed high art, but Hagen’s show never takes itself too seriously. The music is beautiful, the comedy is funny, the performer is charming, and the whole show exudes unpretentious mainstream appeal. 

A celebrated veteran concert pianist whose gigs have ranged from small-town stages to Carnegie Hall, Hagen branched into theatre as the writer and star of Perk last year. It’s basically an anecdotal comedy show in which Hagen talks about her life as a musician while playing around on the piano, adding sprightly melodic ambience to her stories. 

As a comedic keyboardist she’s been likened to the late, great Victor Borge, an apt comparison; but speaking as an oddball spawn of the 70s, she reminds me even more of Borge’s one-time collaborator Rowlf (Jim Henson), the comical canine pianist of Muppet Show fame, which is sincerely high praise coming from this Muppet devotee. She’s got much the same winningly mellow, low-key vibe, and a similarly sly, dry comic wit. 

In Hagen’s case, that wit is delivered with a dulcet, dreamily deadpan lilt, punctuated by occasional over-the-shoulder flashes of her Cheshire Cat grin as she lands punch lines ranging from gleefully shameless puns to saucy double entendres. It’s often silly, but knowingly so, and all filtered through Hagen’s unique, wistfully whimsical sensibility. 

On the serious side, Hagen delves into her own personal and professional insecurities. Calling herself a “recovering pianist,” she talks about her family, her romantic misadventures, the challenging life of a touring musician, burning out on the concert circuit and trying to find direction and stability in her career. There’s a faintly melancholy tone to these confessional elements — the “sadder but wiser girl,” as The Music Man puts it — but Hagen’s endearingly self-deprecating humour keeps things light. 

As for that “recovering pianist” jazz, luckily for us it seems to be a chronic condition. In addition to her recurring musical accompaniment throughout the show, Hagen relapses into full-blown concert pianist mode at one point with some spirited Rachmaninoff, and it’s a movingly beautiful interlude. Watching her lose herself in the piece, one recalls her remark earlier in the show about being able to taste sound — and she certainly seems to be savouring it here.

There might be more innovative, daring or complex plays than Hagen’s on the 2017 Island Fringe slate, but none of them are more thoroughly entertaining. Perk up, pianist! is a simple show, and it’s simply delightful.

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